Sunday, April 4, 2010

More on Scapegoating....

I have been rereading many articles I have saved on my computer and in my bookmarks/favorites to help me write this series. 

I want to highlight (and urge you to read in their entirety) The Theory of Rene Girard and its Theological Implications - Part I

and Part II  both written by Rob Moore.

These writings provide an excellent explanation about mimetic rivalry and scapegoating.  My special thanks to Mr. Moore for providing so much food for thought through his research, his quotes and his own insights. 

They can be found at a site called self described as

a site for those who seek to remain in that space between the outer and inner life, between being active and contemplative, and to find, in the words of Thomas Merton, how "we can become what we already are".

Now some of my muddled thoughts....

Scapegoating has been going on since the dawn of time, in all cultures, all over the world.  It is hidden in the founding myths that describe the origin of cultures, societies and religions.  In a nutshell (even though I am very good at this nutshell stuff) A group of people living together fall into mimetic rivalry...which escalates to the apocalyptic "all against all" situation.  When mimetic rivalry reaches this fever pitch it becomes metaphysical and the participants usually don't even remember what the original rivalry was about.  Think of long standing feuds...between countries, between sports teams, between families.  Sort of the Hatfield's and McCoy's thing. 

Even animals have a form of mimetic rivalry referred to as animal mimicry which is also acquisitive and follows a pattern very similar to the human variety, however, animals have a built in "braking mechanism" that prevents the "group destroying violence." In animals, the rivalry usually stays at the level of competing for the coveted object and does not become metaphysical the way it does in humans (as I mentioned in the example above where the object that was the original cause of the rivalry has long since been forgotten)  In the animal kingdom, the weaker animal usually submits to the stronger animal and the conflict ends there....not contaminating the relationships of the rest of the group (pack).

So, in humans, when violence has reached the point where the survival of the group is threatened, the all against all becomes all against one. The angry mob focuses their murderous rivalry on a who is different or weak....someone they can blame for the escalation of violence and calamity and all the problems they are facing (including their sense of guilt and shame.)  Then they vent their collective displaced anger on the innocent (or not nearly as guilty as presumed) victim. 

Or as James Fredericks in the Cross and the Begging Bowl words it:

“By organizing retributive violence into a united front against an enemy common to all the rivals, either an external enemy or a member of the community symbolically designated as an enemy, violence itself is transformed into a socially constructive force.”

Or as Girard says:

All the rancors scattered at random among the divergent individuals, all the differing antagonisms, now converge on an isolated and unique figure, the surrogate victim.”



(From the Missouri State University Department of History website)

The surrogate victim can be an outsider (from a different clan/race/geographic location).  Or someone from within the community that is different (deformed/mentally ill/poor) or one that is especially valued and often the object of rivalry ( in the poor unlucky victims tossed in the flames to the volcano god, or animals vital to the survival of the in spotless lambs and red heifers.)


(From the Missouri State University Department of History website)

So avert the destruction of the "all against all," the "all" diffuses their anger and frustration on "one" who becomes the victim of the all.  Since the violence against the one is usually unanimously agreed upon by the all, it is a form of sanctioned violence.  And it works!! 

As if by magic, their rage dissipates....and there is cohesion in the crowd. 

It is at this point, after the fact, the angry crowd suddenly realizes there is comradery and goodwill...replacing the anger and division that was present before the sacrifice.  They are awed and conclude that the victim must surely have been supernatural, a god of sorts, if his sacrifice and death could bring calm where before there was so much chaos. So they immortalize the victim, turn him into a god and hide the violence with a myth.  There are countless examples of this down through the ages.

After originally discovering mimetic rivalry in  great and enduring literature...the classics... Girard went on to study the creation stories of ancient societies and religions. In their myths, he found evidence of the scapegoat mechanism as the birth of the society/religion/culture, however, the founding murder and violence is often disguised and glossed over and hidden.

As Gil Bailie has written:

Myth then remembers discretely and selectively; the violence inflicted upon the scapegoat remains hidden.

Examples of these founding myths abound....and Girard discusses some of these examples in his book "I See Satan Fall Like Lightening." We did a book study several years ago on the Beautiful Heresy message board on this book.  Some of his examples include:

  • Sumerian mythology – cultural institutions emerge from a single  victim (Ea, Tiamat, Kungu)
  • India – the dismemberment of Purusha by the mob offering sacrifices (and if I remember correctly from reading the book...the distribution of her body parts) produced the caste system
  • Similar myths in Egypt, China and the Germanic people

And there are many others.  One in particular is discussed in the article I mentioned in the beginning of this post.  More on that tomorrow......

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